Chapter 11 A New Civilization in Western Europe: the Rise of Latin Christendom, 476-1350

Section 3 Kings, Nobles, Popes, and Emperors 

Europeans had developed feudalism and the manor system as a way to provide security as the Frankish empire disintegrated under the blows of barbarian invaders. Military security, however, worked best when it was organized on a regional level. Consequently, as the descendants of Charlemagne died out in the early 900s, strong local lords elected new kings from among themselves to act as regional war leaders. As the invasions ended, the new kings began to consolidate and expand their power. In the process, they often had to fight both their own nobles and the church, which now began to claim authority over all secular rulers. The most effective of these new kingdoms emerged in England, France, and Germany.  

As Charlemagne’s line died out in the 900s, the most powerful dukes and counts of the Carolingian kingdoms chose new kings from among themselves. In the east, German nobles elected Henry I of Saxony king in 919. In the west in 987, nobles chose Hugh Capet, the count of Paris, to succeed to the throne of what was now called France.

            New kingdoms also emerged beyond the Carolingian borders. In the late 800s, Alfred the Great of Wessex united the small, Viking-plagued kingdoms of Britain into a single state, England. In Eastern Europe, the Hungarians converted to Roman Catholicism and formed the Kingdom of Hungary by 1000. Two Slavic peoples, the Czechs and Poles, also accepted Roman Christianity and established kingdoms during this period. Even in the north, in Sweden, Norway, and Denmark, warrior chiefs began to assert themselves as kings over the unruly Vikings. Soon these peoples, too, converted to Christianity. As in Western Europe, the kings saw the church as a means of uniting their subjects. [47] 


The process of establishing royal power in England was greatly extended by the Norman Conquest. In 1066, Duke William of Normandy[48] invaded England claiming the English throne. William was a descendant of the Viking chief Rollo, who had been granted rule over the French province of Normandy in 912 following his conversion to Roman Catholicism. William’s conquest took a long time, however, since the Saxon nobles bitterly resisted the Norman advance. Because he was only able to grant new lands to his Norman nobles as he conquered new territory, most of them ended up with holdings scattered throughout the country. Thus it was difficult for any single lord to gather enough power to challenge the king's authority. With their holdings spread throughout the realm, the nobles also had to take an interest in the well being of the country as a whole.

            William further consolidated his power by ordering a survey of the entire kingdom. The result was the enormous Domesday Book, or Day of Judgement Book. A chronicler recorded the process: 

"He sent his men over all England into every shire and had them find out how many hundred hides [one hide supported one family] there were in the shire, or what land and cattle the king himself had, or what dues he ought to have in twelve months from the shire. . . . So very narrowly did he have it investigated, that there was no single hide nor yard of land, nor . . . one ox nor one cow nor one pig was there left out, and not put down in his record." 

In this way William and his agents knew exactly who owned what and what it was worth—an invaluable tool for levying taxes, distributing land fairly, and figuring out exactly how many knights and foot soldiers each lord owed in military service. It also made it easier for the king to administer the kingdom as a single entity.

            William's son Henry I took advantage of the Domesday record by creating a central treasury department, which collected taxes from the entire realm for the king. Henry II further strengthened royal power by creating the most efficient government bureaucracy in Europe. He also moved toward establishing a uniform system of justice. Instead of local feudal courts handling all but the most important cases, Henry appointed traveling judges who enforced the king’s law throughout the kingdom. Thus he laid the foundations for what would become the common law—common to all England. Justice in the king’s courts was uniform and applied equally to all. As the king's justice replaced that of the feudal lords, people began to identify with the central authority.

            Only the church remained outside the king's authority. The church claimed that its members owed their allegiance not to kings but to the pope, and therefore that the clergy could only be tried in church courts. As Henry and the church clashed over the issue, Thomas Becket, the archbishop of Canterbury, was murdered in his own church by some of Henry’s men. Within three years Becket was proclaimed a saint by the church.[49] King Henry had to undergo a humiliating public confession of fault and a symbolic lashing by the monks of Canterbury. He also had to give up his efforts to make the clergy in England subject to the king’s law.

            During the reign of Henry’s son John, the nobility rebelled against the increasing consolidation of royal power. In 1215 they forced John to sign Magna Carta, the Great Charter, in which he agreed to obtain their consent before raising new taxes. In addition, the charter made it clear that even the king must observe the law. He could not imprison anyone or confiscate their property without following established legal procedures. Nor could he take property without paying for it. The charter laid the foundation for a limited monarchy in England, in which the king would share power with his most important subjects.

            By the mid-1200s, a group of nobles called the Great Council regularly advised the king. In the 1260s, during another rebellion, the council was expanded to include some townspeople and knights. The new body provided an early model for what eventually became known as Parliament, a representative body that gradually evolved over the next several centuries into a two-chamber body—the House of Lords and the House of Commons, both of which met fairly regularly. As both kings and their subjects became used to these institutions, they began consciously to identify with what they called “the community of the realm.” 


While the English kings struggled for power with their nobles, a similar scene was being played out in France, but with a different outcome. Under the last of the Carolingians, France had been divided into large provinces, each ruled by a count or duke. These French nobles ruled their lands as they liked. In 987 they elected Hugh Capet, the first of the Capetian dynasty, as king.

            Where the nobles of England eventually came to identify with the entire kingdom, in France only the kings thought of the kingdom as a whole. Yet at first the French kings were no more powerful than their great nobles—indeed, they were less powerful than some. Despite this handicap, the Capetians ruled for more than 300 years and gradually extended the power of the French monarchy.

            As they sought to assert their authority over their vassals, French monarchs increased the power of the central government. Unable to rely on their lords, they looked for loyal, well-trained officials to maintain a strong central government. They also extended the jurisdiction of their courts. Between 1285 and 1314, for example, Philip the Fair tried to gain royal control over the entire legal system by designating the Parlement of Paris as the supreme court for the entire realm and expanding its functions. Philip also succeeded, where Henry II of England had failed, in controlling his clergy. To gain the support of his people for this challenge to the church, he established the Estates General, a representative body drawn from the three great classes, or estates, of French society: the clergy, the nobility, and the commoners.

            Through the Estates General, later French kings were also able to rally support for their policies. Although they consulted the three estates, they never granted them any real power like that exercised by the English parliament. Whereas in England Parliament had been used by the nobility to check the power of the king, in France the king had created the Estates General in order to control the clergy and bypass the nobility.

            Despite these advances, France remained largely feudal. While French kings might have a vision of the kingdom as a united nation, at the local level such an idea was still almost nonexistent. When the last Capetian king died in 1328, the power of the monarchy too began to decline. 

The Holy Roman Empire

Not all of the old territories once ruled by Charlemagne produced the kind of strong monarchies that emerged in France and England. In Germany and Italy, where once the popes and emperors had stood together to create a universal empire in support of the universal church, the two institutions soon became bitter rivals for power. 

Otto the Great. In 936, the German feudal lords elected Otto I, known as Otto the Great, as king.[50] Like Charlemagne, Otto wanted to become protector of the church and the pope’s authority.[51] When Pope John XII asked for help against unruly Roman nobles, Otto intervened.[52] In return, the pope crowned him "Emperor of the Romans" in 962.  Although Otto's title was the same that Charlemagne had held, his empire was much smaller—just Germany and northern Italy. Although never strong, this Holy Roman Empire lasted for centuries, establishing a unique relationship between Germany and Italy that continued for more than 800 years.

            The power of the Holy Roman emperors reached a high point under Henry III, who first became the German king in 1039 and was crowned emperor in 1046. During Henry's reign three different men claimed to be pope. Henry deposed all three and selected a German instead. He went on to reform the papacy itself, until, as one observer put it: 

“The kingdom and the priesthood . . . shall be so closely united by the grace of mutual charity, that it will be possible to find the king in the Roman pontiff [pope], and the Roman pontiff in the king.”[53] 

Henry also chose the next three popes, but his successors were unable to maintain such power. 

Pope Gregory VII. Henry III's son, Henry IV, was only six years old when his father died. During the years Henry IV was a child, the popes tried to regain their independence from the emperors. In 1059, the pope declared that only the College of Cardinals in Rome, a body of bishops chosen specially for the purpose, would choose future popes. Soon a major struggle between the Holy Roman Empire and the papacy broke out. The struggle intensified when Gregory VII became pope.

            Gregory and Henry clashed over the appointment of church officials by kings or emperors. Henry insisted that he had the right to appoint bishops within the empire just as Charlemagne and other German kings had done. Gregory, however, insisted that because spiritual matters were more important than worldly ones, the pope not only controlled the church but also had the power to depose kings and emperors.[54]

            Henry convinced the German bishops to call for Gregory's removal. Gregory responded by excommunicating the emperor and declaring him deposed. Cleverly, the pope played on the rivalries of the German lords, who disliked the idea of a strong emperor and a centralized imperial state that would limit their own power. The plan succeeded, and the lords rose in rebellion. Henry proved just as clever, however. In the winter of 1077 he traveled to northern Italy. Standing barefoot in the snow before the pope, Henry begged for forgiveness and readmission to the church. He knew that as a priest Gregory could not refuse. Gregory reluctantly lifted the excommunication. The feud continued, however. When Gregory again excommunicated him, Henry marched on Rome—forcing Gregory to flee to Salerno, where he died in 1085.

            Finally, in 1122, Emperor Henry V and the church reached a compromise in the Concordat of Worms. The emperor agreed that the pope should invest the bishops of Germany with their spiritual authority, but he retained the right to grant them their symbols of earthly power and to insist that they perform their obligations to him as feudal vassals. Although England and France made similar deals, no one was really happy with the compromise. More importantly, the ongoing struggle between popes and emperors prevented the development of a strong, centralized government in the Holy Roman Empire, as well as the establishment of the pope’s supreme authority over earthly rulers.


Section 3 Review 

Identify.  Norman Conquest, William of Normandy, Domesday Book, common law, Henry II of England, Thomas Becket, Magna Carta, Parliament, Hugh Capet, Perlement of Paris, Estates General, Otto the Great, Gregory VII, college of cardinals, Concordat of Worms.

Locate.  Normandy, Paris, Worms

1. Main Idea.  What problems did kings in England, France, and Germany face in trying to consolidate their power?

2. Main Idea.  What were the consequences of the rivalry between the church and the Holy Roman emperors?

3. Religion.  In what ways did the Roman church become an important political power in Europe?

4. Writing to explain.  Explain the tactics popes could use in their struggles against the monarchs.